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Addicted to Thin: A Jewish Approach of Enough

Are you happy with your body?

Chances are if you’re like most women, you struggle with issues of body image. Women are amazing self-critics. We are never perfect enough. We’re too fat. Too thin. Too tall. Too short. We have thick ankles. Double chins. Bad noses. Too many wrinkles. Thinning hair. I have yet to meet a woman who looks in the mirror and says proudly. “I love myself the way I am.”

Despite daily prayer and study, a life happily baked in community kindness and giving, my spiritual practices cannot totally override a nagging sense that I, too, am not enough. I remind myself of the saying in the Jewish collection of ancient wisdom, Ethics of the Fathers, to be happy with my lot in life. You get what you get, and you don’t get upset. But who am I kidding? I wouldn’t turn down an offer to be six inches taller. OK, two inches.

As a mother of four, I can recall times when I’ve had at least three different dress sizes in my closet. I’ve gone on whacky diets to shave off ten pounds and now call them cleanses to feel better about my health choices. I know intellectually that the media promotes skewered images of women as objects and that I’d never want my daughters to think of themselves as anything less than the beautiful young women they are. Yet I still struggle emotionally with self-acceptance. I know I am not alone. Looks are important in our society. It’s how we make first impressions of others. It’s often how we torment ourselves.

Many years ago, I facilitated a workshop on body image and aging to women between the ages of 50-70, asking them to report on changes to their bodies that were a source of disappointment. They could not stop talking and interrupting, each one shouting a favorite body complaint, nodding with recognition at the comments of others over some part of themselves that required an extended warranty. I then asked them to mention a body change with age that made them happy. I prodded them gently and then waited for a response. The room was silent.

Something about this response shook me to my own spiritual core. It was one thing to be self-critical but in a room of accomplished women, I expected others to be more content, more mature, more able to put their lives in perspective. I ached for them. I ached for me. It was time to leverage Jewish wisdom.

Judaism has given me the gift that has framed my whole life – a path of deep meaning, connection to others and a connection to God, who created us all in the divine image. Sometimes we fail to see that divine image in ourselves. And because of our preoccupation with weight, we sometimes fail to see the divinity in others who we mentally accuse of letting themselves go or not having enough self-control. Sometimes those people are members of our family – a parent, a child, a spouse – who don’t need us to judge them but instead need loving affirmation.

What can we do? It may be time to buy the magnet on my fridge, “With the time and energy we’ve spent dieting, we could have built a small, fat-loving civilization.” Alternatively, we can turn to ancient Jewish wisdom for three pieces of sound advice and positive re-framing:

1) The famous sage Rabbi Meir adjures us not to judge others, “Look not at the vessel but what it contains.” When I find myself in judgment about a friend or family member’s body, I will gently remind myself to push the thought away. Instead, I will identify one beautiful quality in the person before me. De-emphasizing my own focus on looks when it comes to others, softens the way I look at myself. When I am about to find fault, I have to find one beautiful thing in myself.

2) When I find myself in judgment over the body of someone I do not know, I will remind myself of the wise statement of Philo of Alexandria, an early Jewish historian: “Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a great struggle.” I, too, am fighting a great struggle with superficial demons. I have to recognize the struggle and try to quiet the voice of insecurity by enhancing my spiritual pursuits.

3) “Acquire a friend,” says Ethics of the Fathers (1:6). I will seek out new friends and strengthen old friendships where the spiritual is valued over the material. In those friendships I will avoid negative self-talk. Putting myself down to others makes me put myself down more.

4) Ethics of the Fathers recommends that we, “Greet every person with a cheerful face “(1:15). I am included in that. I must see the way the way I shine and put my talents, skills, and service into a more balanced way of looking at myself. I commit to looking in the mirror each morning and smiling first.

We have all been fighting a great internal battle and probably losing. So maybe it’s time to stop fighting and start loving. We can face the anxiety of inadequacy with a song of blessings that is the centerpiece of one of our most joyful holidays: Dayenu. We are blessedly enough.

Dr. Erica Brown Director of the Mayberg Center, George Washington University

Dr. Erica Brown is an associate professor at George Washington University and the director of its Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership. She is the author of twelve books on leadership, the Hebrew Bible and spirituality; her forthcoming commentary is The Book of Esther: Power, Fate and Fragility in Exile (Koren/OU). She has been published in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Tablet and The Jewish Review of Books and wrote a monthly column for the New York Jewish Week. She has blogged for Psychology Today, Newsweek/Washington Post’s “On Faith” and JTA and tweets on one page of Talmud study a day at EricaBrown.

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